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Stories about secret tunnels in Lexington spawn theories

December 22, 2018
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Main Street in through downtown Lexington on Friday, Dec. 14, 2018 in Lexington, N.C. A forlorn and forgotten subterranean set of tunnels, mentioned out of the clear blue sky in a social media posting, has touched off a small avalanche of theories, and memories, about what might have been.(Andrew Dye/The Winston-Salem Journal via AP)

LEXINGTON, N.C. (AP) — Holiday shoppers stepped lively around Uptown. They dodged piles of dirty slush and patches of ice stubbornly clinging to pavement tucked away in the shadows.

Down below shoppers’ feet, out of sight and out of mind as people hustled underneath strands of lights and Christmas wreaths, lurks a mystery.

A forlorn and forgotten subterranean set of tunnels, mentioned out of the clear blue sky in a social media posting, has touched off a small avalanche of theories — and memories — about what might have been.

Were the tunnels built by gangsters running illicit booze during Prohibition? Were they used by prominent men looking for a discreet way into (and out of) the old March Hotel? Were they part of the Underground Railroad to help spirit slaves away? Or simply extended storage areas in the oldest commercial district in town?

“I don’t know a lot about it,” said Traci Shrewsbury Moree, the woman whose Facebook post last week kicked it all off. “I’d like to know. I was born and raised here.

“It seems sad to lose a part of the town’s history.”

Moree took to social media following a nice lunch out with her daughter.

While walking to the restaurant, they passed by a set of concrete stairs leading to an old wooden door directly underneath a building on Main Street near the old courthouse.

Moree mentioned to her daughter about tunnels under Uptown sidewalks and streets. She had been inside one when she operated an accessories store at the corner of South Main and First Avenue.

“There was a door that led into the basement,” Moree said. “It was always so creepy that we were scared to go down there.”

Curiosity got the better of her in 2010 or ’11, Moree said, so she and her sister grabbed a flashlight and decided to explore.

They found an unlit opening that looked to be at least the length of the store. It had a dirt floor large enough for a grown man to walk through. “It was dark and dingy,” she said. “There was a little bitty sink, what looked like shoe shine and shoe repair equipment.”

And there was one other thing. “It looked like it was going somewhere under the street and sidewalk.”

Her memory sufficiently jostled, Moree posted to a Facebook group for Davidson County residents.

Anyone know the history of the underground tunnels that are under Main Street? It would be nice to pass it on to the young people.

That simple musing caught fire. It was commented on, shared or liked more than 150 times in short order.

Older residents chimed in with memories of businesses located in the basements of the buildings on Main Street.

“I remember as a child there were block-like tiles (like glass tile) in the sidewalk which may have provided light in the cellar,” wrote Sharon Lawson. “I remember walking on them. Seems like it was at the corner of East 1st Ave & S. Main.”

That disclosure naturally prompted a flurry of theories as to their origin and purpose. One tunnel might have connected the former W.G. Penry Co. — “the old store with young ideas” per the 1949 City Directory — a full block on South Main to a building that now houses a tuxedo shop.

A second tunnel, the one Moree reported, may have run from that building under South Main to the old March Hotel.

And that’s where the fun begins.

Some readers posited that it was used to deliver moonshine from a downstairs barbershop to the hotel during Prohibition. Another opined that perhaps gentlemen of a certain stature used it to sneak into the March.

Still others, given the proximity of the old Davidson County Courthouse, opined that it might have been used to hide slaves in the 19th Century.

No one so far can say definitively what they are. But everyone likes a good mystery.

As these things do in the age of the internet, it didn’t take long before someone thought to ask at the Davidson County Historical Museum, which is housed in the old Courthouse.

“We were made aware of the social media trend as well,” said Caitlin Williams, the museum’s curator. “There are no historic resources to support or refute theories online or when they were made. We’re equally as interested as everyone else.”

Some folks in the city’s utilities and streets departments were a little surprised by my question about tunnels. If anybody knows about tunnels, I figured it would be somebody with the city.

“I’ve been with the city for 26 years and I’m not aware of any tunnels in the downtown area,” said Bryan Craver of the Lexington streets service division. “If there are, it’s been kept a great secret.”

As intrigued as anyone, Craver said he’d ask around with some “of the elders to see if it’s a myth or what.”

The best, most-solid theory posted has it that tunnels did exist at one time but were mostly filled in leaving room for underground storage similar to what Moree saw. What’s left would be in disrepair, possibly dangerous and inaccessible to the public.

No matter the explanation, the discussion Moree provoked with one innocuous post on a Facebook page was a hoot.

It wasn’t hard to conjure images of moonshine or Roaring ’20s speakeasies. And it’s cool to know that there are plenty of others out there interested and curious enough to want to know something of a city’s history.

Williams perhaps summed it up best writing online for the museum in a post asking for information.

“What we know for certain is that hidden, secret or otherwise forgotten passageways are a matter of intense curiosity all over the U.S. and the world. . . . Are there steam pipe channels, sanitary system drainage points, shared crawl spaces and basements between buildings? Or is there something more intricate than that under our feet?”

I spoke with her again Friday to see if anything new had been unearthed. Researchers had looked at old maps created to support fire insurance policies but found nothing more than a few basements and the like.

“It might be more fun just to leave it open for people to draw their own conclusion,” she said.

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Information from: Winston-Salem Journal, http://www.journalnow.com

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